Despite losing time to Nairo Quintana and Joaqium Rodriguez on stage 18 to Alpe d’Huez, Chris Froome held firm in yellow and put further time into his chief rival Alberto Contador in the Tour de France overall classification.
Froome lost contact with Quintana and Rodriguez in the closing stages of the climb but by that point Contador had already been distanced. Froome finished 1:06 down on Quintana and Rodriguez but now has a buffer of 5:11 over Contador, who clings to second place, just 21 seconds ahead of Quintana.
Even a 20-second penalty for taking a feed inside the final kilometres couldn’t put a dampener on Froome, who, with the help of Richie Porte, managed to keep a bout of hunger knock under control as he limited his losses and crossed the line in seventh.
"I’m just happy to get through the stage and come out of it with more of an advantage than I went into it," the race leader said.
"If that was a bad day for me then I’ll definitely accept that. I’m just really thankful of the way my team rode today. They really were great, especially Richie Porte in the final. He’s put aside all his ambitions to help me keep the yellow jersey and he stayed with me all the way until the final today even though I was having a tough day."
Saxo-Tinkoff came into the stage knowing that they had to unsettle Froome early on in the stage if they were to remount a serious challenge for the overall. Several early attacks were nullified, with Froome himself closing gaps. Nicolas Roche and Sergio Paulinho were sent up the road in a bid to possibly create a launch pad for Contador but they were dragged back on the first ascent of Alpe d’Huez.
When Contador and Roman Kreuziger managed to break clear on the descent of the Col de Sarenne they were only afforded 20 seconds with Movistar combining with Sky in the chase.
"It was interesting to see Kreuziger and Contador going off the front on the descent," Froome said. "It was still a long way from the base of Alpe d’Huez for the second time so I don’t know, I think that move could have cost them a lot of energy that they seemed to not have in the final, but Movistar have ridden a very good race with Quintana. I definitely see him keeping his podium place all the way to Paris."
On the final climb Contador was clearly under pressure and it was Froome and Quintana, with Rodriguez then joining in, who turned the screw with 12 kilometres to go.
However, Froome paid tribute to Porte at the line, after the Australian pulled his way back to the GC contenders group and then shepherded Froome to the line once Quintana and Rodriguez had escaped.
"Personally I think he’s the second best GC rider in this race. Just the fact that he’s had to lay aside his ambitions to help me keep my yellow jersey, I think that’s what has cost him his place on GC, but the winner of Paris-Nice this year, he’s showed several times that he’s one of the best GC riders in the world and if he had the opportunity to ride solely for himself at the Tour de France he would certainly be on the podium."
Froome’s hunger knock was perhaps his first demonstration of weakness in the race so far. So dominant at Ventoux and Ax 3 Domaines, he was dropped for the first time in the race as the pure climbers were able to distance him.
In his press conference he was asked if today’s showing would improve his image after sections of the press has labelled him as super human.
"It’s crazy hearing people talk like this. Of course I’m human. Anyone can have a bad day and any athlete can have a sugar low at the end of a race, so as far as my energy goes, I know what I’m doing is right and I’m extremely proud of what I’ve done and no one can take that away from me."
The race leader was also quizzed on the news that Sky had released two years of the rider’s power data to French newspaper L'Equipe and respected French physiologist Frederic Grappe. Speaking to L'Equipe about Froome's data, Grappe suggested that Froome's power indicate that his performances were consistent during 2011-2013 and similar to other riders he has studied.
"Just so it’s clear it wasn’t a decision that I took," Froome said.
"The team owns all that data and they made the decision to release all that data to the relevant analysts. I’m really happy to hear their findings and their take on it, and basically to back us up and say that these performances are very good and strong, clean, sporting performances. Just to back up what we’ve been saying all along. It’s good that someone has been allowed to see the data and after seeing the data they’ve come back and said that we’ve been doing things according to what they’d expect."